ART CHECK

Internet helps lit world bear social distancing

Digitisation of culture enables us to keep enjoying literature even in the wake of Covid-19

In Summary

• Vlogs, podcasts have tapped paradigm shift to online culture as Kenyans stay at home

A man works from home
A man works from home
Image: PIXABAY

Governments of the world have deployed diverse strategies to combat Covid-19 and its effects. One approach adopted by many countries, including Kenya, is social distancing.

The word has become a catchphrase of our times. It comes in many forms. All share the medical belief that highly contagious airborne diseases can be combated by enhancing distances between members of society. The distance of 1–2 metres between individuals is recommended at any public spaces and places where socialisation occurs at the religious, business, work or other levels.

Social distancing operates on the principle of separation/alienation rather than cohesion. It advocates spatial distancing or physical distance between members of a community. Statistics show clearly it works well for the medical approach to public health in these times of the novel coronavirus. However, how social distancing impacts on other aspects of social life demands our attention also.

In the spirit of social distancing, most Kenyans have increased their online activities as they stay at home or carry on their formal duties remotely. Online retailers of different commodities and services are said to be making a killing as human activities increase online.

Prof Kimani Njogu moderates Dr Mbugua wa Mungai and Dr Justus Makokha at the 2012 conference at Goethe on Digitisation of Kenyan Culture
Prof Kimani Njogu moderates Dr Mbugua wa Mungai and Dr Justus Makokha at the 2012 conference at Goethe on Digitisation of Kenyan Culture
Image: JUSTUS MAKOKHA

Enhanced reliance on electronic media and mass communication to perform our public lives is simply more evidence of our social distancing culture today. For the first time in our history, an important event of our national culture, 'Labour Day', occurred remotely through live television last Friday. 

Apart from traditional electronic media, such as radio and TV, the Internet is the new frontier of public engagement. Last week, Prof Egara Kabaji, president of the Creative Writers Association of Kenya (CWAK), opened a YouTube channel (Egara Kabaji TV).

Kabaji posts a series of vlogs on various literary topics targeting teachers, students and the general public at home. Increasingly, vlogs and blogs are becoming essential aspects of our everyday life. They are no longer a luxury of the digital generation but the new forms and formats for addressing the literary modernities of the 21st Century.

For the past seven years, a prominent Kenyan blogger, James Murua, has provided a wonderful virtual platform on African literature. His increasingly popular blog, www.jamesmurua.com, is a one-stop terminus for literary events, news and information at the touch of a button from the comfort of your home or mobile phone.

He is also the media partner of “Afrolit sans frontières”, an initiative of African writers led by South African Zukiswa Wanner. It conveys an experience of African literature in a borderless world, for which Murua is a wonderful digital champion. The pandemic has seen him witness increased visitations on his blog as more Kenyans read online.

In a series of podcasts, Afrolit features prominent African writers talking about the book art and craft as they discuss their new and cardinal literary works.

 

They range from the celebrated Zukiswa Wanner to the award-winning Kenyan banker and novelist Kinyanjui Kombani. The series is titled 'African Literary Podcasts' and has over 15 different pieces of literary indaba/talk in virtual or digital formats. The use of podcasts as a digitised form of literary communication is gaining ground in the wake of the stay-at-home experience across African cities.

One can download podcasts on various cultural topics from online sites and listen to them offline from the confines of their homes, using the ubiquitous smartphones.

The spirit of our times today rests on increasing acceptance of cyberspace as the new cultural space for literary experience in Kenya. Ours is a social modernity informed by intricate yet increasing interconnections at the intersection between culture, technology and public health.

The Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the unfolding intersectionality of our public locations of culture and private lives. It has given us a golden opportunity to rethink the established and emerging dimensions of literary production and consumption.

Digitisation and digitalisation of culture enables us to continue our enjoyment of literature and musical arts even in the wake of social distancing. These shifts in dimension of cultural practices are bound to stay with us long after the pandemic has been contained and return to a new normalcy happens. Moving forward, it will be hard to think of the arts and cultural life without digital technology.

Social distancing has enabled us to realise we need alternative ways of seeing and understanding the arts in a fast-changing world that increasingly relies on technology to face future uncertainties beyond Covid-19.

Today, virtual spaces and platforms offer us safe distances from physical interaction. Remotely, they afford us newer options to continue nurturing and appreciating our cultural tastes and artistic sensibilities. They offer us a paradigm shift from our mainstream understanding of literature, culture and the arts in the age of digital technology.

 

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Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University